Malcolm Turnbull

A Listing Ship: the Modern-day Liberal Party

Some rambling thoughts on the Australian Liberal Party’s current malaise…

The Liberal Party’s Identity Crisis

With each passing day, it seems harder and harder to discern any kind of coherent philosophical base uniting the Liberal Party. Even its alleged commitment to small government and the virtues of free markets is more theoretical than real these days. That particular axiom has been hollowed out recently, as the Coalition has sought to retain the favour of the electorate by embracing traditional Laborite, “big government” programmes. Promising to fund bloated schemes of questionable financial wisdom – the NDIS, the NBN and the Gonski school reforms are just three that come to mind – the Liberals have even abandoned any substantive devotion to economic liberalism. This is of a piece with their rather anaemic (non-)defence of key centre-right/conservative values. The party is now languishing in an agonising period of ideological confusion.

The question concerning the Liberals’ governing principles has taken on a new urgency in recent times, as the various ideological factions composing the party – the so-called “moderates” and “conservatives” – have descended into rancorous, internecine debate. This isn’t to say the issues besetting the Liberals weren’t present beforehand; something like this doesn’t just spring up overnight. Clearly, they have been percolating for some years now, with the party’s past two leaders, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, acting as standard-bearers for the warring blocs. But the unexplained (not to mention incompetent) removal of the former member for Wentworth has exposed the fact that the present-day Liberal Party is, philosophically-speaking, rudderless.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the party of Menzies faces a crisis, one of existential import. But what has caused this ideological drift? Such a situation, slow to take shape, is unlikely to be mono-causal. Rather, it is the product of a complex confluence of factors, both proximate and distal.

Mapping the Crisis

At one level, the Liberals’ current woes can indeed be seen as a by-product of the party’s apparent inability to reconcile its two main philosophical streams. The increasingly schismatic quality of its internal ructions has obviously had an enervating effect – when any group is this consumed with collective navel-gazing, a period of drift is inevitable. The same-sex marriage debate showcased some of these divisions, with that particular question unveiling deeper fissures concerning the basic direction of the party. Tensions have been intensified immeasurably by the simmering personal feud between Abbott and Turnbull, who came to embody contrasting visions of what it meant to be a Liberal. Partly as a consequence, the party now seems beset by a kind of philosophical inertia, increasingly torn between two ways of articulating conservative/right-leaning politics in Australia. Such conflicts continue to smoulder, not only within the parliamentary party, but also at the local branch level.

Nevertheless, one shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the sole reason for the Liberals’ problems, important though it is; nor is it the only lens through which the party’s listlessness may be viewed. For several years now, the Coalition has been afraid to advance a principled, coherent, conservative approach to the many issues with which the country must grapple. Instead, it has either evaded those issues outright, or engaged in abortive and half-hearted attempts to give voice to a right-of-centre perspective. Worse, it has wholeheartedly embraced positions that were first propounded by its ideological opponents, and which in many cases undermine the strength of the conservative position. This sad state of affairs is doubtlessly connected to the party’s internal divisions, such that it persistently struggles to present a unified view on a clutch of controversial questions. But one doesn’t have to look too far to find examples of even Liberal warriors capitulating on principle for the (increasingly elusive) prize of electoral popularity.

It might be recalled that it was none other than Tony Abbott – a conservative pugilist, if ever there was one – who on the eve of the 2013 election promised that there would be “no cuts” to education, health, and the like. At best, the pronouncement jarred horribly with what many regarded as basic right-leaning approaches to the role of the state, fiscal rectitude, etc. (even if one ultimately concludes that no cuts were required, how wise is it to blithely promise that much before one has been able to conduct a proper audit of federal spending?). Moreover, it was Abbott who in 2014 abandoned efforts to dilute S18C of the RDA in the interests of some Quixotic goal of uniting all Australians – including Muslim Australians – behind a raft of new anti-terror laws. Once again, conservatives watched in dismay as a putative champion abruptly abandoned another article of (political) faith.

The point of this exercise in recent political history is to suggest that the evacuation of the Liberal Party’s binding philosophy began before many of the internal divisions we have been witnessing came to the fore. Abbott’s uncharacteristic timidity and awkwardness during the debate around S18C is a clear example.

This goes well beyond the events of the previous six months, or even the past five years. As John Roskam, executive director of the Institute for Public Affairs, has pointed out, the Liberal Party has been in a state of ideological flux since the retirement of John Howard after the 2007 election defeat. Writing just after Peter Dutton’s ill-fated attempt to wrest the leadership from Turnbull last August, Roskam observed:

“[It does not] settle the fundamental question the Liberal Party has been grappling with since the retirement of John Howard and Peter Costello. For a decade the Liberal Party has struggled with the question of what should be its philosophy and its principles…”

Roskam went on to correctly note that the Liberal Party has, over the past ten years, embraced a number of economic positions that would make any Keynesian proud (to take just one policy domain). It has increased taxes, expanded the welfare state, and presided over the entrenchment of new and burdensome regulations. Meanwhile, members of the party shy away from several controversial – though nonetheless important – civic debates. The result of this timorousness is two-fold: a now-chronic inability to outline an agenda that can appeal to both intellect and lived experience; and the public’s (understandable) failure to grasp the party’s vision for the country.

In Search of Adequate Leadership

Roskam made an interesting, albeit fleeting, point about the identity crisis with which the Liberal Party has wrestled. It is obvious that the party of the Howard-era was a far more united, far more coherent political body. It was a “broad church”, of course, composed of both social conservatives and small “l” liberals. But with uncanny political nous, as well as an ability to articulate his party’s position in a clear and consistent manner, Howard was able to maintain a degree of institutional and philosophical cohesion – based largely around a shared commitment to economic liberalism – not seen since. Elsewhere, Roskam suggests:

“In simple terms, at the federal level the parliamentary leader of the Liberals sets the party’s philosophical direction and Liberal MPs then follow it.”

Is it a case, then, of faulty leadership? Can the Liberals resolve their painful wrestling by finding an effective “pontiff” who can successfully hold together this broad church, whilst outlining a compelling vision for the country that grounds itself in centre-right principles? Howard achieved this goal with consummate skill as he led the Liberal Party to four consecutive election victories. Whatever one thought of his basic political stance, such leadership is sorely lacking these days. Its absence, and the sense of drift that has ensued, is indelibly linked to the party’s present malaise. The fact that it has now had three leaders since winning office in 2013 – with the third coming to power despite never having explained why his predecessor’s demise was necessary – is perverse evidence of this reality. Although some sporadic efforts towards the construction of a positive agenda have been made, the current leadership of the Liberal Party seems just as diffident as previous iterations. Conversely, a talented leader can draw together the disparate elements of a party in an act of remarkable political alchemy. Roskam’s observation is therefore true in many respects: philosophical cohesion and fidelity to a party’s traditions depend in large part on the quality of the person leading it.

On the other hand, I think Roskam’s dictum may overstate things somewhat, if simplistically applied to today’s context. The political, social, and economic landscape has shifted markedly since John Howard was in office, which I think makes it far more difficult for a centre-right leader to articulate and prosecute his or her party’s agenda. At this point, the Liberal Party is in such a perilous state that it seems incapable of producing anyone who can rise about the intellectual torpor in which it is mired. This isn’t to say that the environment in which the Howard Government found itself was entirely benign; nor am I suggesting that the re-vitalisation of the Liberal Party under a competent leader is impossible. However, it appears that on a number of fundamental questions – questions that go to the heart of what the party stands for – the electorate has either drifted leftward, or fragmented politically in a way that eludes any one party’s control. In such a climate, even the most gifted of leaders is constrained in what he or she can accomplish.

The Economy: A Window into the Liberals’ Woes

Economics, which is so consequential to the Liberal Party’s identity, is a case-in-point. The Global Financial Crisis proved to be something of a watershed in regards to the way a government’s relationship with the economy was conceived. Rightly or wrongly, that catastrophe was attributed by many commentators to the evils of unbridled capitalism – a consequence of the free market’s alleged moral failings. Since then, consecutive governments of both ideological persuasions have adopted an increasingly interventionist approach to economic management. The GFC provided the rationale for the Labor Party to dramatically increase public spending – a trajectory from which its parliamentary opponents have only marginally dissented.

Voters have become habituated to such increases. The notion that government ought to play a relentlessly interventionist role in the economy, or should provide a panoply of income supplements as part of an ever-expanding welfare state (regardless of need), are now axioms of modern Australian life. Note, for instance, the victory of Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government in last November’s election, which was attributed in part to promises of massive infrastructure spending projects. The electorate was impressed by what it saw as an activist government “getting things done”. Unfortunately, such promises carry with them the likelihood of fiscal profligacy – a risk that did not prevent Victorian Labor from notching up a huge win. That win is one sign that the expectation of governmental largesse is now an accepted norm; when such a climate prevails, even the mere suggestion of reform in this domain is a risky prospect. Just look at the discussion around company tax cuts. As current polling data around the reduction of company tax suggests, the public is at best bemused by – and in many instances, quite hostile to – the idea that large businesses should be afforded some relief in this area.

Such scepticism is no longer confined to the progressive side of politics: many on the populist right, for example, hold economic views that are antithetical to a free market philosophy (think One Nation). Though a minority force within Australian politics, right-wing economic nationalism is not negligible. Thus, on the issue of the economy – to say nothing of other urgent questions – the Liberal Party is confronted with a much more malign political landscape. Finally, splits within the party itself reflect what one observes within Australian society-at-large. They manifest themselves in debates around economic philosophy, with some Liberal members calling for a move away from a “dry” approach, in favour of one that is claimed to be more “centrist”. Whether they are genuinely convinced by such notions, or have merely proposed them for the sake of electoral gain isn’t the point; however, a prospective Liberal leader wanting to stake out a distinctive position on (in this case) economics will not only face external hostility, but internal intransigence as well. Fiscal restraint and economic liberalism, meanwhile, continue to dissolve as core tenets of the Liberal Party’s platform. (As an aside, it’s ironic that the Liberals are still castigated for their apparent devotion to a harsh, unsparing economic philosophy, when in so many instances their policy position either mirrors, or merely shifts by degrees, the agenda of the ALP).

What I’m trying to say is that the issues confronting the Liberal Party are institutional and structural. The tectonic changes that Australian society has experienced have made it much harder for a leader of the Liberal Party to offer up an agenda that maintains some fidelity to centre-right principles, whilst also appealing to large swathes of the electorate. The party itself it adrift, having long ago slipped its ideological moorings on the question of the economy; some putative Liberals are being formed by a political culture inimical to liberal economic values, whilst others are advocating an entirely post-ideas approach to political engagement (a meek capitulation if ever there was one). As a consequence, the party faces the reality of at least the partial collapse of a common agenda. This is made all the more acute by a complementary breakdown in a shared conception of authentic centre-right social values, which has now become contested territory.

An Uncertain Outlook

Thus, even if the Liberal Party were to engage in another round of blood-letting – a real possibility if they lose this year’s federal election – there is no guarantee that a leader capable of supplying intellectual ballast could be found, given its parlous state. What’s more, taking the helm of the party now means having to contend with the fact that much of the electorate is either ambivalent towards, or deeply sceptical about, many of the tenets that have traditionally formed the party’s base.

If correct, this means we are left with a sobering conclusion: the absence of clear direction within the Liberal Party (in economics, as in so many things) is not merely symptomatic of political incompetence or a lack of unity, but is a product of the unfavourable historical juncture at which it finds itself. The Liberals must wrestle with the tension of trying to remain a party of (in this case) economic liberalism whilst appealing to an electorate whose mood on that issue has substantially shifted. That tension can be seen in the increasing internal confusion that besets the party, and its faltering efforts to respond to a changing economic landscape. Grappling with deep disagreements over their basic philosophical orientation, the Liberals are now at the mercy of centrifugal forces, both internal and external, that threaten to sunder them entirely.

Herein lies a devilish conundrum. On the one hand, the party of Menzies can choose to bravely unite around a coherent set of values, and hew to those policies that have traditionally formed a core part of its identity. That of course risks an indeterminate period of electoral failure, since the party can no longer rely on a neat dovetailing of economic liberalism and the voting public’s majority sentiments. But on the other hand, if the Liberal Party elects to move (further) away from its natural home on a raft of issues, it only succeeds in raising vital questions concerning its commitment to a distinct, coherent, stable philosophy. Abandoning its governing principles merely for the sake of electoral gain means that it alienates itself from the very thing that supplies its reason for being in the first place. Similarly, if the party seeks advantage by aping the ALP – all the while maintaining a superficial commitment to superior economic management – it merely exposes its own desiccation. Producing a leadership team capable of outlining a credible agenda would form only a partial solution to this dilemma. Given the welter of structural changes over the past decade or so, wholesale reform is beyond the capacity of any one individual. It confronts an uncertain future, regardless of the direction it chooses.

Having said that, the Liberal Party as a whole will probably need to bite the proverbial bullet and re-embrace a principled, centre-right agenda, despite the possible electoral consequences of such a decision. At least on the question of economics, the party will need to be resolute as it tries to persuade a doubting public that relatively free markets, small government, fiscal restraint, strong property rights, and the like, offer the best avenue towards national and personal wealth. This alone is how its identity crisis might be definitively resolved. I’m not saying this will be easy, or that it offers a straightforward path to success. For the time being, at least, I’m fairly certain it won’t. But what other alternative is there, save for a cynical (and so far unsuccessful) attempt to mimic the party’s political opponents? Whether Liberal members are willing to place fealty to principle above such cravenness, however, remains to be seen.

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Free Speech: In Search of True Defenders

Note: the bulk of this article below was written before the outcome of the recent parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C. I have left the article largely intact, with just a few nods to events of the past month.

Free speech advocates have every reason to feel aggrieved with the current government. Why, just a few weeks ago – after a parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – Coalition politicians somehow managed to combine pusillanimity with pugnacity. Scott Morrison brusquely claimed to “know” that “this issue doesn’t create one extra job”, failing to “see any intersection between the issue and those [i.e., economic] priorities” (Michael Koizol, “Scott Morrison Warns Against Internal Fight Over Free Speech Laws: ‘It Doesn’t Create One Job’”, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 1st, 2017). Other ministers made the same attempt at compensating for their lack of ideological fortitude by publicly scorning the expansion of free speech.

This is not a new claim, by any means. Morrison’s argument reminds me of some rather tremulous comments the Prime Minister uttered last August in response to the same issue:

“With all due respect to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job or…build an extra road” (Paul Karp, “Labor Accuses Coalition of Changing Stance on Racial Discrimination Law,” The Guardian, August 19th, 2016).

Around the same time, one of Turnbull’s ministers, Mitch Fifield, said much the same thing on ABC’s Q and A program (even repeating the phrase “worthy arguments” to ensure everybody knew he was on message):

“While I appreciate many of the worthy arguments that some of my colleagues put forward in relation to 18C, it’s not something that we have an intention to change” (Q and A, August 22nd, 2016).

Fifield went on to offer a rather insipid rationale for inaction, which sounded uncannily like his leader’s. And last December, John Alexander (the Liberal member for the federal Sydney seat of Bennelong) urged the government to concentrate on “productive things rather than political things [i.e., debates over amending 18C]” (Rosie Lewis, “Malcolm Turnbull Faces Section 18C Test Amid Ethnic Opposition,” The Australian, December 29th, 2016). It seems that this kind of febrility is endemic within the Liberal Party.

To be sure, Turnbull has softened his opposition to changing 18C, and his government is now proposing certain amendments to the offending act. He’s offered a welcome rationale for the public modification of his assessment, saying “there is a view” that “the bar has been set too low” with regards to the law in question, thereby constituting an unwarranted “restriction [upon] free speech”. This is quite reasonable: as recent controversies have indicated, views that appear to fall outside the definition of racially offensive speech have nonetheless proven vulnerable to legal censure. To what extent Turnbull’s change of heart has been the result of a genuine shift in perspective – as opposed to a restive backbench – is uncertain. But even some of his more recent reflections on the subject are relatively muted: witness the way he talked about freedom of speech in the abstract (“there is a view…”), as if he himself were too afraid to own the opinion to which he was referring. A full-throated shout of defence it was not.

The lack of conviction is still a worry, particularly from someone who supposedly holds to the tenets of classical liberalism. That other segments of the Liberal Party – you know, that party of small government and personal liberty – should also be shy on this issue is equally troubling. Even if the Coalition is successful in securing changes to 18C, the fact remains that a number of senior ministers have staked a lot on the argument that amending the law is a mere distraction from the task of financial and economic management. Moreover, they seem to suggest that trying to change the parameters of 18C – even if successful – would do nothing to improve the budget’s parlous state, ease the country’s financial woes, or expand employment opportunities for people. These two concerns are, it seems, mutually exclusive.

However, the basic assumptions resident in the above comments raise crucial and abiding questions about the kind of culture we want to see prevail in this country; the fundamental values that undergird Australia’s liberal democracy; and even the relationship (if indeed there is one) between basic politico-philosophical values and economic prosperity. Their Quisling character aside, the arguments proffered by Turnbull, et. al., revealed a surprising degree of ignorance regarding the relationship between free speech and a healthy body politic. I’ll say more as I proceed.

A Hollow Vision

In making their argument against pursing changes to 18C, Coalition ministers repeatedly offered what could be called the “technocratic defence”. Theirs were the words of dry administrative experts – of elite technocrats, committed only to solving the impersonal problems of a modern industrial economy. They seemingly lacked sufficient interest in more substantive, indeed existential,[1] issues such as freedom of thought and expression; instead, they preferred to hide behind a supposedly exhaustive obligation to the nation’s technical-economic challenges. In other words, their justification represents the evacuation of philosophical and cultural substance from the project of governance, reducing it to a hollowed-out form of managerialism. Worryingly, their views implicitly devalue the constitutive importance of the basic liberties this country possesses, and upon which our politics – and indeed our society – are built.

As one of those basic liberties, freedom of speech has made an essential contribution to the enviable character of contemporary Australia. Similarly, it is integral to the tolerant and intellectually rich societies that have developed over the centuries in the West. Freedom of speech has been astonishingly successful in enabling Western states to resolve a complex array of problems across virtually every field of inquiry. Without liberality of speech, one loses many of the other important freedoms we cherish: freedom of religion as a crucial subset of free speech; freedom to assemble peacefully for the purposes of, say, political expression; or the freedom to vote for the party of one’s choice (and to later criticise it), as a further instance of the citizen’s articulation of his or her views. Moreover, freedom of speech cannot be separated from freedom of thought: curtail the one, and you inevitably restrict a person’s right to pursue the other. Liberal democracies, which have come to represent the fruits of Western culture in political form, cannot properly survive without these elements. They are intrinsically, indissolubly, connected. Almost by definition, Western culture prizes freedom of speech as the public manifestation of rational, free-thinking individuals. Restrict it, and one ends up desiccating the culture to which it gives life.

Advocating for the liberal expression of one’s views – in this case, by urging amendment of an illiberal law – is therefore no mere symbolic act. Conversely, to leave it alone as too controversial is far from inconsequential, such is the deep relationship between this feature of the West’s cultural legacy and the kind of convivial, open society modern Australians enjoy. By contrast, the vision of the putative technocrat, with his narrow dedication to achieving a balance between economic inputs and outputs, is largely empty. It appears satisfied with a rather barren political culture – bereft of the vibrancy that stems from a vision of what makes for a mature, responsible, truly flourishing citizenry. As John Roskam, head of the free-market think-tank Institute for Public Affairs, recently quipped, if things like road-building are the final measure of good governance, there really is nothing to separate Australia from North Korea.

To be sure, I am not arguing for an activist administration; states should never be the final guarantors of free speech and ideational exchange (as if all depended on their paternalistic largesse). Nevertheless, there is much they can do to limit themselves so that individual liberty is preserved, even expanded – including divestment of any powers they might have to improperly police individual expression. Anything less is an abnegation of responsibility on the part of liberal democratic politicians and lawmakers. It is therefore surprising in the extreme that elected officials – particularly those in the liberal mould – should have thought that road-building and budget repair, as important as those activities are, rank higher than one of the supporting pillars of Western culture.

But the hollowness of vision to which I am referring runs deeper than that. In many ways, political questions can ultimately be reduced to questions regarding the nature of the human person, and the proper ordering of human relationships. That is, one of the fundamental issues lying behind political debates is what it means to be truly human – and, hence, what kind of community or social order is likely to be most conducive to human flourishing. Listening to Turnbull, Fifield, Alexander and Morrison trying to play economics off against philosophical concerns, one would get the impression that for them, a human being can be reduced to a determinable economic unit, who will respond appropriately to positive material stimuli. It’s a view that casts individuals as pure consumptive actors, without reference to the kinds of core principles or qualities that animate a person. This is, of course, incredibly shallow. Humans are not simply objects that can be deterministically manipulated by mere material considerations. They are conscious beings, possessed of rationality and free will, capable of exercising these powers as they receive and analyse the world around them. Humans are, as it were, agents, acting and engaging and negotiating with reality on the basis of a fundamental orientation – sometimes misaligned, but nonetheless present – towards the attainment of truth.

Freedom of speech respects these insights into the human condition. It rests on the presumption that humans are rational beings, capable of using logic and evidence to explore and determine their views on a particular issue. It places faith in the capacity of human beings to combine intellectual concepts in a coherent and ordered way, such that they may arrive at (rough) approximations of various aspects of reality. To that end, advocates for freedom of speech – correctly, in my view – argue that the best way for grasping the truth, or of deciding on a matter of public importance, is to allow all views to be heard; that way, the individual can, with relative liberty, reason through different lines of argument. This isn’t perfect by any means, since nothing that humans devise ever is. But comparatively speaking, liberality in speech provides a surer means of developing adequate knowledge about the world, and securing correspondence between one’s beliefs and that which is true. To paraphrase the late Michael Novak, free speech gives “play…to [the] unlimited drive to ask questions, and to [the] unrestricted desire to know” as humans seek out truth.

Such accounts also implicitly assume the human person is more than the sum of her biological or socio-cultural parts. They tend to conceive of the individual as a positive entity (rather than the mere intersection of broader forces), possessing a self-regarding, self-critical ability to interpret the world around her, and to make decisions accordingly. It respects the fact that whilst a person is obviously shaped by various external factors, she is no mere passive receptacle or programmed automaton. Favourable treatments of free speech assume that the person still bears the freedom of will to select some truth-claims over others, and to decide for herself (based, one hopes, on rational thought) where the truth might lie. Of course, presuppositions, unacknowledged self-interest, or the effects of social conditioning will invariably insinuate themselves into the structures of an individual’s thinking. However, free speech advocacy takes seriously humans’ capacity for reasoned choice. On this view, an unrestricted exchange of views promotes intellectual virtue, and provides the most expansive context within which human rationality may flourish.

Unwarranted restrictions on speech, on the other hand, undermine crucial aspects of human uniqueness. Beliefs that have been coerced (or manipulated via the proscription of unpalatable views) are neither rational nor free: they aren’t rational, because coercion as a means of guaranteeing “correct” belief breaks the logical link between adherence to a certain truth-claim and its rational or evidential merits; and they aren’t free, for the self-evident reason that force or arbitrary restriction is the very antithesis of political – even volitional – liberty. Indeed, to accept veridical claims on the basis of active compulsion or government censorship represents the very negation of rational discourse between responsible, thinking beings. To suggest that the concerns of the modern, technocratic state are more important than amending an affront to freedom of speech doesn’t just mute a key aspect of the West’s cultural heritage; it also invites a diminished view of the individual, and inhibits a crucial mechanism for the intellectual thriving of human beings.

A False Choice

If what I have written were the only reasons for criticising Turnbull and his ministers, then I’d say it was enough. But in addition to implicitly deprecating the substantive value of free speech, their comments represent a false choice between economic concerns and philosophical principles. The idea that they are separate and separable fails as a general argument, precisely because of the intrinsic connection between the free exchange of ideas and the generation of wealth and economic prosperity. Whilst Coalition ministers sought to play the “productive” off against the (so-called) “political”, they were seemingly unaware that the former is, in many ways, reliant on the latter. That is, communication that is largely unrestricted forms a necessary pre-condition for the sort of mesmerising prosperity Western countries have historically enjoyed. More prosaically, the ability to freely debate important issues offers a society the best chance of developing credible – and, for our purposes here, economical – solutions to complex problems. The economist and economic historian, Deidre McCloskey, has argued the Great Enrichment experienced by the Western world since the middle of the nineteenth century can be explained in large part by the success of certain ideas. As McCloskey suggests:

“What mattered [in relation to the enrichment of the West] were two levels of ideas: the ideas for betterment themselves (the electric motor, the airplane, the stock market), dreamed up in the heads of the new entrepreneurs drawn from the ranks of ordinary people; and the ideas in society at large about such people and their betterments – in a word, liberalism” (Deidre McClosky, “The Great Enrichment,” NRO.com, November 7th, 2015).

According to McCloskey, the West’s unprecedented levels of economic development (unprecedented in historical, and even current global, terms) cannot be understood unless one takes note of their intellectual basis. At one level, that meant the ideas of betterment themselves: technical innovation that led, either directly or indirectly, to expanding prosperity. It hardly needs saying that advances such as these are offered a boon when ideas can be freely exchanged, without restriction. And indeed, at another level, McCloskey seems to be saying exactly that: the “massive ideological shift towards market-tested betterment”, generating not merely technical innovation, but a fundamental change in the way (Western) societies were composed, as well as the manner in which individuals – now seen as beings possessed of freedom and equality – related to each other. McCloskey is clear: “our riches [came] from piling idea on idea…”

This should hardly come as a shock. After all, there exists a connection – one that can be intuitively grasped – between freedom of speech and economic prosperity. It may not always be direct, but it is there. Considered as an economic doctrine, freedom of speech promotes the open transmission of ideas conducive to social and material betterment – ideas that, when co-mingling, have the potential to generate profound advances in technological sophistication and material wealth. The zoologist and science writer, Matt Ridley, has cheekily called this process “ideas having sex”. By that, he means that the complex marriage of diverse concepts – sometimes from very different fields of enquiry – generates new knowledge, driving significant economic progress. Freedom of intellectual exchange stimulates creativity, leads to an intellectually fertile citizenry, and ultimately spurs on all manner of innovations. As the academic Brett Christensen has written, “free flowing ideas and debates contribute to creativity…education, and cultural evolution”. The thinking that some of our elected officials have recently showcased relies on a spurious division between two phenomena that are intimately intertwined.

There is, of course, one obvious rejoinder to what I have just said – namely, what any of this has to do with proposed amendments to a law which putatively concerns racially offensive speech. Indeed, whilst some may well concede the above points as theoretically valid, they might still argue that issues relating to free speech and racial vilification (on the one hand), and economic progress (on the other) are simply unconnected. To put the point in the form of a question: just how would amending or abolishing 18C of the RDA help politicians improve productivity or tackle the country’s budgetary woes?

But if the rejoinder is obvious, so too is a surrejoinder: it is simply impossible to predict what ideas may flow, interact or “copulate” as a result of the removal of restrictions to speech and the exchange of ideas. This may not happen immediately or directly. But if the history of economic and technical progress is anything to go by, the germination of some ideas by others (including those that may, at first blush, appear entirely unrelated) can occur in the most surprising of ways.

Please bear in mind, I am not making the rather outlandish argument that giving space to racially insulting speech might somehow lead to economic enrichment, or usefully contribute to policy discussion. What I am saying is that winding back 18C might provide clear air for views that have been illegitimately captured by the law – views that might, if given an honest hearing, open up discussions around important issues that touch on both society and economics (however obliquely). Indeed, as UQ professor of law James Allan has remarked, the remit of 18C has expanded to the point where it is now invoked to try and silence serious views regarding culture and public policy, on the spurious grounds that they are racist. This is in large part because of problems with the law itself. Amend it, and politicians and policy-makers wrestling with complex, multifaceted problems might find themselves aided by propositions that now fall under the shadow of legal sanction.

I think this response can be sharpened up a bit by focusing on one particular manifestation of the wider controversy. Recall the original context in which Turnbull made his comments. They were partly sparked by a complaint (using 18C) against the late cartoonist, Bill Leak, and a cartoon he’d drawn in The Australian of an Aboriginal man who didn’t know the name of his wayward son. Leak sought to go behind the events of the day, which were related to a contemporaneous report on Four Corners, alleging despicable treatment of young indigenous men at a youth detention facility in the Northern Territory. Leak wanted to ask why these young men were locked up in such facilities in the first place. His point, pungently made, was that the real scandal lay in the neglectful environments in which the boys had grown up, where parents had commonly failed in their duty to model responsibility, moderation and self-control. Certain individuals began legal proceedings in response to the cartoon (since abandoned), which led to several fraught weeks for Leak and his employer.

What has all this to do with economic issues? At first glance, very little. But think about it for a moment. The ongoing ill-health of many indigenous communities – particularly those in remote areas – is very costly. It is costly in human terms, of course, as lives are sometimes irrevocably damaged. But it is also costly economically. All those young indigenous men who languish in prisons and detention facilities around the country obviously aren’t contributing to the economy: they’re consuming public resources and they’re not in the workforce. Their previous crimes have cost individuals and the state both resources and money. Looking at the issue through a purely economic lens, it’s clear that those young men are adding to the overall financial burden of both the states and the Commonwealth.

Leak’s visual commentary sought to provide one explanation for why dysfunction prevails in certain Aboriginal communities – dysfunction that, whilst devastating on a purely human level, also has an important economic dimension. It is an urgent issue that warrants open debate. If the reasons for the existence of such deleterious environments – environments that seem to produce an inordinate number of young men with a propensity for delinquency and criminality – can be found, so much the better. However, if certain views are deemed illegitimate, and attempts are made to silence them via the threat of litigation, then an important public conversation is curtailed. Such restrictions upon ideas and opinions simply chills free debate, deprives people of possible solutions, and risks perpetuating tragic and costly problems.

Effective public policy cannot long survive without the existence of facts. I’m not referring to dominant narratives, nor comforting ideologies, but to stark, uncomfortable, messy facts. That is the only way a country’s socio-economic problems can be properly tackled. If policy is founded upon a bed of truth, then politicians can better target their efforts. But it becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve such a goal when communication and inquiry is diminished – haunted – by the spectre of state-sponsored censorship. Ultimately, this is not a question of whether, say, Bill Leak’s views are correct (although for what it’s worth, I think his cartoon was spot on). The point is that the susceptibility of certain views to legal censure, before they have even been discussed or debated, represents an irrational, arbitrary approach to public discourse and the resolution of such desperate issues.

Indeed, if it can be shown why some Aboriginal communities are seedbeds for the kinds of young offending we have seen, then policy (to the extent that government policy should be wielded in this area) can be effectively applied. That, of course, can have economic and budgetary flow-on effects, as communities are stabilized, children are properly educated, young men are kept out of jail, people are placed in employment, costs are reined in, and the financial burden shouldered by the state is reduced. In point of fact, then, changes to certain race-based laws have the potential to (indirectly) contribute to the very goals our fearless leaders claim to be concerned about. As such, the argument that economic issues and possible amendments to 18C are incompatible or unrelated is false, and anyone making it is either being obtuse or disingenuous.

***

Again, the government’s recently-proposed changes to 18C is a welcome development. But one gets the feeling that its heart is still not in this fight. And it is just one of several debates around principles and philosophy from which the Coalition has tried to run, or on which it has remained frustratingly silent. By dragging this particular debate out over several months (and more), the government has needlessly wasted time and political capital. More importantly, by grounding so much of its resistance in spurious arguments, it has undermined its own political and philosophical outlook. Despite the current shift, the vehemence and consistency with which the above views have been articulated by members of the Coalition makes it difficult to believe that they have simply withered away. This is either a sign of political cravenness or a basic loss of liberal values. Is it any wonder, then, that voters have begun to look elsewhere?

[1] ‘Existential’ in the sense of the deeper character and quality of existence, not its mere presence.

The End of Brown and the Future of Green

I’m sure everyone who heard the news was shocked: Bob Brown has quit politics, effective this June. I know that I was. Not so long ago, he was talking about pushing on through to the next decade. He appeared to be indefatigable, unstoppable – at the height of his powers and at the top of his game. Indeed, he seemed to have reached the political zenith, having helped to form a minority government and exercising a worrying degree of influence over it (or so it seems). Senator Brown, however, has been a significant figure in Australian politics for much longer than the life of the current Federal government. As such, his departure – especially in such an abrupt manner – marks a momentous occasion in this country’s political history. The following are some thoughts and reflections (by no means original, unprecedented or unique) on what this means for the party Senator Brown founded, the Australian Greens.

First up: why did Brown quit? It’s a question that seems not to have been answered satisfactorily. The suggestion has been made that he was tired and fatigued. But that explanation seems incongruous when placed next to his confident assertion (made not two months ago; see Matthew Denholm, “A Couple of Things Behind the Change of Heart,” The Australian, April 15th, 2012) that he was looking fairly far into his political future. What brought about such a change?

One answer might be that Senator Brown saw the writing on the wall. He perhaps knew that the government he helped install is loathed by a large chunk of the Australian electorate. He may further have had an inkling that he shares some responsibility for that loathing, since he helped foist an unpopular carbon tax on an unwilling citizenry. Senator Brown is leaving politics on a high, at about the time the carbon tax comes into force. He doesn’t have to face the collective opprobrium of the Australian public, instead opting for a generous pension package and the tranquillity of the Tasmanian bush – or so the argument goes.

Philippa Martyr, writing in Quadrant, certainly thinks this to be the case (“Brown Down, Deeper and Down”, April 16th, 2012). I’m not as sure about this, although given Senator Brown’s comments regarding his own political longevity, Martyr’s view does have merit. It would seem odd, however, for a man who really is a “conviction politician” (regardless of what one thinks of those convictions) and who, as an activist, was not afraid to cop a bit of criticism in the pursuit of his ideals, to now cut and run. To my mind, there is a disjunction between Bob Brown as he is, and the idea that he wouldn’t be willing to face the electoral consequences of his principles. Perhaps we’ll never know the real reasons.

Although Senator Brown’s motives for leaving the Senate remain a little unfocused, there is one looming question that will be in the minds of many individuals: what does this mean for the Australian Greens? The new leader, Senator Christine Milne, does not have the same profile as Bob Brown. He is iconic (again, without reference to whether that status is for good or ill). Senator Milne, on the other hand, does not have the same stature as a politician. Similarly, Senator Brown can lay claim to being the embodiment of the Australian Greens, and perhaps the wider Australian environmentalist movement. Senator Milne, whilst by all accounts a tough negotiator, cannot claim that mantle. My point is that once Bob Brown has left the scene, what will be left of the party he helped to found? One can imagine that, given his status, this will leave a hole in the party so large that it cannot be filled. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end – a slow decline as the Greens, for so long built around the personal lustre of Senator Brown’s image, begin to flag politically.

Moreover, Bob Brown’s absence may well cause rifts – which have been with the Greens for a while – to surface. There is a well-known division within the party between traditional greens, who are committed to environmental activism, and the so-called “watermelons”: disaffected socialists who sought out the party as a way of bringing their ideological and political homelessness to an end. Senator Lee Rhiannon epitomises this trend. She was, for a very long time, a member of the Socialist Party of Australia, and shifted to the Greens after that earlier party died in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise. She and her ilk represent a burgeoning group within the Greens, and one may well see a schism that threatens the party’s electoral prospects. Without the force of Bob Brown’s person holding the party together, prepare for the possibility of fragmentation. The already-present tensions between those dedicated to a pure environmentalism, and those whose commitment is really a shell for inner devotion to a kind of warmed-up socialism, can only become more overt with Brown’s departure.

To be sure, political parties invariably have to sort through potentially conflicting wings and factions. They are broad churches. The ALP, for example, is divided between traditional defenders of the working class, and those whose appeal is concentrated amongst affluent, left-leaning urbanites whose views overlap considerably with the Greens. The Coalition, too, has to provide a home expansive enough to accommodate those who would describe themselves as small “l” liberals (think Malcolm Turnbull), and those who are more socially conservative (Tony Abbott comes to mind). So, trying to bring together various ideological sub-groups within one party is not unique to the Greens. The party, however, has not had to deal with this phenomenon in any serious way. Senator Brown’s personal stature, as noted, has been enough to keep these potentially polarising forces in check. The test now is for the Greens to move beyond reliance upon Brown’s charismatic and unifying influence. The ability to make a smooth transition from one leader to another, coupled with a broad unity that is simultaneously flexible enough to accommodate internal diversity, are marks of political maturity. It remains to be seen whether the Australian Greens are indeed mature enough to escape dependence on the symbolic power of one individual, and forge a broad-based coalition of views without him.

Similarly, the party has yet to graduate fully from protest social movement to fully-fledged political party. Senator Brown is an astute politician, but the Greens still represent a halfway house between ideological idealism (to put it charitably) and the political mainstream. It is still, in many ways, a party of protest, whose appeal is unlikely to expand further without engagement with the political centre. It was always said of the Greens that they could afford to produce and espouse radical views because they were unlikely to accrue real power. The 2010 Federal election has shown this to be out-of-date (for now, at least). If the Australian Greens want to form government – a prospect that Bob Brown commends, but that I doubt – then they must be willing to abandon the absolutism of many of their policies and learn the art of compromise. Not just negotiation with other political figures, but authentic compromise with various sections of the Australian public. The other way lies political irrelevancy (which may yet be likely).

There have been a number of articles written about Senator Brown over the past few days: some balanced; some fawning; and some downright obsequious. One particular tribute, however, caught my eye. It was a piece that appeared in The Age, written by James Norman (“Bob Brown Hikes off into his Political Sunset,” April 15th, 2012). In this article, Senator Brown’s biographer suggested that his subject “threatens the big end of town because his politics are the politics of democratic revolution…” (italics mine).

It’s lovely rhetoric in a glowing tribute. But how accurate is it? How glittering are Bob Brown’s democratic credentials? I can think of two instances that bring Mr. Norman’s assessment into question. The first instance was Senator Brown’s vocal support for the much ballyhooed media enquiry. He was – and is – a true advocate, calling for the media’s regulation. The second instance occurred recently, where Brown called for a global democracy whilst giving a speech in Hobart. Both examples give the lie to suggestions that the good Senator is a pure advocate for democratic politics. Suggesting that the media needs regulation represents an intolerable intrusion into a long-standing guarantor of freedom of speech. Supporting global democracy means calling for a system of government that cannot possibly respect individual autonomy or liberty. It is rule by the mob writ large, a tyranny of the majority on a global scale. That is not democracy – at least, not as we understand it. In any case, these examples cast doubt on Norman’s view that Bob Brown is a paragon of democratic virtue.

* * *

Bob Brown is certainly a phenomenon in Australian politics, having bridged the gap from social and environmental protestor to hardheaded political negotiator. Whether the party he helped found can do the same is another matter entirely. As I said, I doubt the Christine Milne and others have the magnetism or iconic image, both of which Bob Brown possesses, to propel the Greens towards further electoral success. Political marginalisation may be beckoning, though it may occur at glacial speed.